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One of the great things about attending a crit group is realising that you and other writers have ‘tics’ in common. By helping to identify them together you can help each other to remove them and improve your writing.
Here are two tics that came up during our latest crit session.
Metaphors and similes.
Simile: a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.
Beware the cliché - as brave as a lion
Beware The Blackadder Syndrome - This place stinks like a pair of armoured trousers after the Hundred Years War – unless you are Ben Elton, Richard Curtis or another genius of comedy.
Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
Beware the cliché - A blanket of snow
Beware The Blackadder Syndrome - The path of my life is strewn with cowpats from the devil's own satanic herd. - See above on who is allowed to be this ridiculous.
Used appropriately similes and metaphors are wonderful tools. They aid the readers' understanding of complex issues, they create images that bring immediately clarity to the work, they make us laugh.
Used inappropriately – wrong image/sound/feeling, too intense, too complicated etc they jolt the reader out of the story as the reader attempts to work out what the author means. A reader might even start to have an adverse reaction to the metaphors and similes
Author - Princess Penelope’s stomach gurgled like a blocked drain.
Reader – No it didn’t. I’ve heard my stomach and it has never, ever sounded like a blocked drain.
Actually, having written that, I’ve just thought how funny it would be to write a story about a princess who DOES have a stomach that gurgles like a blocked drain. So, perhaps you should make up a better bad simile for yourself.
Some editorial suggestions for those who love to use metaphor and simile.
Check the appropriateness – is it right for the situation/genre/age group?
Check the word choice - Am I being inappropriately poetical? Does the tone of the metaphor match the tone of the work?
Check the logic - Read it as a critical reader and say ‘Really? Does it? Is it? What the hell do I mean by it?
Check the image. What image have I created? Is that the image I want?
Check the intensity - is it right for the emotion I want the reader to have at this point in the scene?
Check you’re not trying to be too clever – am I bringing clarity to the text or am I confusing the reader.
Check the frequency of metaphors and similes in some mentor texts (books from the same genre, age group etc that you think reflect what you want to achieve). I analysed a few YA books, just the first chapter.
Neil Gaimen’s Neverwhere - 2 similes (both together in one description)
Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses – 0
Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights – 1 metaphor
Hm. Interestingly sparse.
Next tic – Inappropriate Mystery and Atmosphere
Sometimes writers bury their hooks and protagonists in false atmosphere and mystery. I think they do this to intrigue the reader but it leads to confusion. And there is a fine balance between intrigued, puzzled, and totally confused.
If this is your writer’s tic you will have put your protagonist into a scenario that’s normal to him/her and then added a mysterious or scary atmosphere hoping that this mysterious tone will hook the reader. If you’ve done this then you will have created a confused reader when it becomes clear that the protagonist is not in a Hammer Horror.
Dave the gravedigger paused in the shadow of the ancient gravestone. His spine tingled. Was this the right place? The right time. He looked around. Listened to the beat of his heart amongst the silent dead. The sun was going down. He wouldn’t be seen now. He dropped to his knees and flipped open his bag. His stomach growled like a stomach that was ready to digest a rotting corpse of putrefaction and pus. (Oops - The Blackadder Syndrome!) He surveyed the contents of the bag. ‘Oh bugger it,’ he swore. His flask of tea had leaked. His butties were soggy. His lunchbreak was ruined.
Cemeteries aren’t spooky to those who work in them every day. Don’t write mysteriously because you’re writing a mystery. If it isn’t mysterious to the protagonist don’t make it mysterious to the reader. Be clear. The reader should see, hear, know and feel what the protagonist sees, hears, knows and feels.
If this is your tic ask yourself -
What is my protagonist seeing and hearing?
What emotion is my protagonist experiencing?
How have I transferred that into the head of my reader?
Have I been honest with my reader?
I could go on with more tics, in fact I may do that over the next few posts. Meanwhile, if you want to identify your own tics you could start with How Not To Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published. It's an excellent checklist.
Plato famously said that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. But with respect to one aspect of poetry, namely metaphor, many contemporary philosophers have made peace with the poets. In their view, we need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:
selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.
How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine. Science advances by the use of metaphors – of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language. Plato condemned poets for claiming to provide knowledge they did not have. But if these philosophers are right, there is at least one poetic use of language that is needed for the communication of many truths.
In my view, however, this is the wrong way to defend the value of metaphor. Comparisons may well be indispensable for communication in many situations. We convey the unfamiliar by likening it to the familiar. But many hold that it is specifically metaphor – and no other kind of comparison – that is indispensable. Metaphor tells us things the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ never could. If true, this would be fascinating. It would reveal the limits of what is expressible in literal language. But no one has come close to giving a good argument for it. And in any case, metaphor does not have to be an indispensable means to knowledge in order to be as valuable as we take it to be.
Metaphor may not tell us anything that couldn’t be expressed by other means. But good metaphors have many other effects on readers than making them grasp some bit of information, and these are often precisely the effects the metaphor-user wants to have. There is far more to the effective use of language than transmitting information. My particular interest is in how art critics use metaphor to help us appreciate paintings, architecture, music, and other artworks. There are many reasons why metaphor matters, but art criticism reveals two reasons of particular importance.
Take this passage from John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin describes arriving in Venice by boat and seeing ‘the long ranges of columned palaces,—each with its black boat moored at the portal,—each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation’, and observing how ‘the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation’.
One thing Ruskin’s metaphors do is describe the waters of Venice and the Ducal palace at an extraordinary level of specificity. There are many ways water looks when breezes blow across its surface. There are fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into many pieces. And there are still fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into pieces forming a rich mosaic with the colours of Venetian palaces and a greenish tint. Ruskin’s metaphor communicates that the waters of Venice look like that. The metaphor of the Ducal palace as ‘flushed with its sanguine veins’ likewise narrows the possible appearances considerably. Characterizing appearances very specifically is of particular use to art critics, as they often want to articulate the specific appearance an artwork presents.
A second thing metaphors like Ruskin’s do is cause readers to imagine seeing what he describes. We naturally tend to picture the palace or the water on hearing Ruskin’s metaphor. This function of metaphor has often been noted: George Orwell, for instance, writes that ‘a newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image’.
Why do novel metaphors evoke images? Precisely because they are novel uses of words. To understand them, we cannot rely on our knowledge of the literal meanings of the words alone. We often have to employ imagination. To understand Ruskin’s metaphor, we try to imagine seeing water that looks like a broken mosaic. If we manage this, we know the kind of look that he is attributing to the water.
Imagining a thing is often needed to appreciate that thing. Knowing facts about it is often not enough by itself. Accurately imagining Hopkins’s despondency, or the experience of arriving in Venice by boat, gives us some appreciation of these experiences. By enabling us to imagine accurately and specifically, metaphor is exceptionally well suited to enhancing our appreciation of what it describes.
On April 22, 2009, powered by the dazzlingly bright solar power of Carmela Martino, we started this blog.
Five years--what a fabulous ride it's been!
Five candles. And when there are candles, someone makes a wish and blows them out. So you could say that this image represents the six active TeachingAuthors. (We're celebrating allTeachingAuthors who have been part of our blog biography.)
Campers, thank you from the bottom of our candles for reading, following, commenting and encouraging us. You're why we do this. You're why I'm terrified everytime a post is due. We want to add something meaningful and merry to the party! In celebration of You, this month's drawing is for one of FIVE "blogiversary book bundles." Each bundle is a set of five books hand-selected by a TeachingAuthor and contains at least one autographed TA book. Yay You! (Details below.)
LIBERTY by Janet Wong from DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE – Poems for an Election Year I pledge acceptance of the views so different, that make us America To listen, to look, to think, and to learn One people sharing the earth responsible for liberty and justice for all.
Wow, right? So much substance packed into 12 lines.
* * *
This month is overflowing with poetry! Three TeachingAuthors are celebrating in three ways:
And thank you, Amy, of The Poem Farm, for hosting Poetry Friday today!
* * *
By now you're asking: "How can I enter to win a Book Bundle?
Our giveaway starts at midnight on Friday, 4/3 and ends at midnight of the day after our blogiversary, 4/23.
--You have a chance to win one of FIVE "blogiversary book bundles." Each bundle is a set of five books hand-selected by a TeachingAuthor and contains at least one autographed TA book.
--Books will be mailed directly to the winner, so winners must have a US mailing address.
--You have 3 entry options, and can enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options to increase their chances. (We DO verify that you've met all the criteria for each option. Incomplete entries will be disqualified.)
1) Tell us how you follow the blog (by "follow" we mean some sort of automated subscription service, such as via email, Facebook, Bloglovin', etc.) We have links in the sidebar to make it easy to start subscribing if you haven't already.
2) Leave a comment on THIS blog post. If you have difficulty commenting, you can submit comments via email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com. For this giveaway, you need to include in the comment either a) the title of a favorite poem OR b) the title of a favorite TeachingAuthor blog post.
Please be also sure to include your name in the comment so we can verify you've fulfilled this option. [Some folks don't comment with their real name and we have no way of knowing who they are!]
3) Help spread the word. Share a link back to this blog post from your own blog, or from Twitter, Pinterest, or any other way we can verify online. You must include the URL of the link in the space provided.
I had a wonderful poetry teacher, Tony Lee, who taught us about voice. Describing something, as a journalist does, Tony said, is the reporting voice.That voice comes from the lips, the mouth, the throat.
Writing about feelings comes from the gut, a lower, truer, sometimes scarier place, he said.
This is the deep voice. The deep voice attracts readers. It connects them to your story. Be brave, he told us. Find the feelings. Go there.
So why do some blog and FaceBook posts get nine kazillion comments (not mine!) and some get zip?
it seems to me that getting your work read (or, more to the point, getting your work read and passed on) is about superficial vs. deep.
Just like a book in which the author rips off her shirt and shows us her scars (as Anne Lamott does), FaceBook and blog posts that come from the gut are the ones that resonate.
I was at a meeting the other day; each of us had three minutes to talk about anything we wanted. The first two minutes and 30 seconds I talked about some success I had had. In the last 30 seconds, my mouth opened and an embarrassing truth popped out. I said that Robyn Hood Black had very kindly gifted me homemade granola. It was especially touching because Robyn knows I can't eat sugar, so she made it with sugar-free maple syrup. I could actually have it. Delighted, I sat down for lunch, thinking I'd taste just a spoonful, just to see what it was like.
Good granola is dense, so you don't need much. And you and I know that you're supposed to eat two cups of granola over a period of several days--with fresh blueberries and your pinky finger raised, right?
Not me... immediately my mouth opened, a vacuum turned on, my brain turned off, and nearly two cups of absolutely delicious granola were gone. Gone!
This isn't Robyn's granola. Hers had yummy bits of coconut in it. But...um...I didn't have time to take a picture of hers. So this is from morguefile.com
As we went around the room sharing, do you think others in the group commented on the nicely packaged pithy wisdom in my first two minutes and thirty seconds? Nope. Nearly ALL of them talked about my granola adventure. It hit a familiar nerve. We've all been there.
It was no longer mine...it was all of ours.
During Poetry Month this year, I had what I called a metaphoraffair--I practiced finding metaphors, posting one each day, both on my website (where, it turned out, the comment mechanism was broken) and on FaceBook and Twitter.
The metaphor which drew the most interest was my final post for Poetry Month 2014, written with and about my mother, who is 91 and not doing great. It was hard for me to post; it was true. It was from my gut.
I drew this in November, 2010, after Mom and I walked around a park in Malibu…suddenly I was the parent
Thanks to Jim Hill for inspiring this comic with his "metaphor mixologist" phrase on Twitter.
When I was working on the comic, I got curious about mixed metaphors and did some research...and of course immediately fell into the Black Hole Of The Internet. Sooo many interesting links! I could browse grammar sites for way too long, I think.
Last week I did an event at my local library to promote my new children's book The Flying Bedroom. A few children turned up - but a few adults came along as well - some of whom knew me and perhaps were there out of curiosity about the sort of thing I write.
After the event one of them came up to me and said he'd he loved the ideas in The Flying Bedroom- "so many metaphors!" he said, and looked at me knowingly.
"Yes," I said, self-consciously. "I know."
Perhaps this is why I always feel slightly awkward when reading my stories to adults. Like dreams, our stories are full of symbols – and symbols are the way our unconscious sends us messages. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to figure out the issues I’m still resolving – you just have to read my children’s books.
In fact, they say that the people in our dreams aren’t themselves at all – they just represent alternative versions of ourselves. Might the same be said of the characters in our stories? Might Elinor be me?
In one adventure in The Flying Bedroom, Elinor wakes up and is appalled to find herself in bed on centre stage, with an entire audience waiting for her to perform. Insecure? Moi?
In the next adventure, Elinor finds her bedroom stranded on the moon and longs to get back home again, to that blue-green marble on which resides 'everyone she knew and everyone who'd ever been'. Might she be trying to tell me that, despite the fact that I love living alone, I do need people after all?
Is it Elinor or me who says, 'the world is a big place; it seems a shame to stay in one place all your life when there's a world out there waiting to explore'? - then contradicts herself by saying: ‘it's only when you're far from home that you can see how beautiful it is'? And surely it is Elinor – not I – who speaks the line: "I don't want to kiss Prince Charming!"
The intention to reveal our innermost selves is never intentional - but when we make up stories from the heart, it happens regardless. If we try to deny that our stories reveal something about us, we're like the psychiatrist's patient who is asked to 'write down his dream and bring it in next week to be analysed’. The patient thinks he'll pull the wool over his psychiatrist’s eyes by making something up from scratch, instead. Then, when the psychiatrist analyses the ‘dream’ the patient says, ‘Ha! But it wasn't a dream - I just made it all up.’
And the psychiatrist just smiles and says, 'same difference’.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the revision process. When I teach writing workshops, I always tell students, if you can’t deal with revision, don’t be a writer, because you’ll be doing it all your life.
There’s the revision you do yourself, before you let anyone see your heart’s work; the revision you do after your trusted readers give you feedback. Sometimes it’s even hard to stop revising and send your work out.
And, of course, if you send it out, and you’re lucky enough to be published, you will be revising in response to your editor’s feedback. Ideally, that partnership results in a better book. But that doesn’t make it any easier when you get that editorial letter and the work you thought was basically done isn’t.
So I’m in the middle of this major revision. I’m wrestling with this 500+ page manuscript. I wrote 150 new pages, revised everything else, then cut 100 pages. Today I decided to move this one scene. But one thing led to another, and now everything is scrambled. This is the kind of situation that results in mistakes. And heavy drinking.
When I was in junior high school, I was a volunteer at a VA hospital. They didn’t allow visitors under 15 on the floor, but I was there, at 14, volunteering. One thing that struck me was that the patients always looked worse when they came back from surgery—pale and wounded, sick, and confused. On life support. And I remember thinking—this is a good thing?
Depending on the seriousness of the surgery—er—revision, your book can look worse before it looks better. Sometimes you’re afraid it will never recover. You hope that once you’ve repaired the plot holes and cut away the dead tissue, your book will be healthier for it.
Not enough metaphors for you? I’m a professional writer, after all.
My husband works in stained glass. He was making a lamp recently—had it almost finished, and set it aside on the floor to clear his work table so he could work on something else. Somehow, he stepped on it, shattering several panels. He had to cut out the unsalvageable, replace it with new, and somehow make it fit back together.
He came upstairs and said, “I think I finally understand what revising a novel is like.”
I said, “Welcome to my world.”
I was secretly glad I didn’t have to solder anything. Words, I can do.
“Vivid imagery makes a story world come alive,” says Stacy Whitman, Associate Editor at Wizards of the Coast (Update March, 2010: Whitman is now editorial director of the Tu Books imprint at Lee & Low.) Everyone agrees that a writer’s ability to create an image in a reader’s head through their words is integral to fiction and effective novels. When writers and editors push toward imagery vivid enough to transport readers to new worlds, there are many options.
A book Whitman has edited is In the Serpent’s Coils: Hallomere (Wizards of the Coast, 2007), by Tiffany Trent, the first of a ten-book dark-fantasy novel series called Hallomere. (Update: Wizards of the Coast is no longer publishing stand alone fantasy novels and this series is out of print, only available from used book sources.) The series features six girls from around the world who are drawn together to rescue their missing schoolmates and prevent catastrophe in an epic battle between dark fey (or supernatural) worlds and the mortal world.
Vivid nature imagery sets mood. Whitman describes this short scene as having vivid nature imagery that sets a dreamy, magical tone for the novel, while emphasizing the Fey’s connection to nature:
But then she saw a dark shimmer by the hemlocks again. The tall man turned, as though he felt her gaze. He wore shadows deeper than twilight, and, as before, she couldn’t see his face. But she felt his gaze, felt it through the swift gasp of her heart, the seizure in her knees. The Captain raised his hand to her, and she saw, despite the dusk, that his hand was shiny and scarlet, as though wet with blood.
Stark, direct description sets mood.Alan Gratz creates a different sort of mood in his award winning book, The Samurai Shortshop (Dial Books, 2006), through what he describes as stark and direct description. In one of the most emotional openings of a story in young adult literature, Toyo helps his Uncle Koji perform the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku.
Now Toyo sat in the damp grass outside the shrine as his uncle moved to the center of the mats. Uncle Koji’s face was a mask of calm. He wore a ceremonial white kimono with brilliant red wings–the wings he usually wore only into battle. He was clean-shaven and recently bathed, and he wore his hair in a tight topknot like the samurai of old. Uncle Koji knelt on the tatami mats keeping his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo.
What makes you love your WIP? Is it the characters? The plot? The premise?
For me, it's a combination of the above, but it's also that indefinable magic that suddenly makes symbols and images appear in the writing without my knowledge, the overarching, structural metaphors and symbols that bring disparate elements together and illuminate what the story is about. Often I don't have any idea where they come from. Sometimes they are purely conscious. Either way, they form the connective web between the images, themes, characters, and settings. They're the unifying force that gives life to the work, and the surprise and delight I find when they work is a big part of what makes writing--and reading--fun.
As writers, we have a whole arsenal of tools we can use to deepen our work and engage readers on additional levels. Among other things, we use:
establishing or anchoring images to set a scene.
closing images to underscore tone or heighten emotion.
symbols to build a wordless emotional vocabulary.
figurative language to simplify explanation at the sentence or paragraph level.
recurring symbols or echoes to draw attention to a theme.
recurring images to underscore turning points, build emotional intensity, point to what characters are feeling or thinking, or make a characters voice unique.
Chaining or repeating symbols, metaphors, or images together can be one of the simplest and most powerful ways tie scenes or subplots together.
Symbols, imagery, and figurative language are usually simple to spot and identify, but there are so many different kinds it an be hard to remember that we have a much wider range of tools than we commonly use. Each type is unique, but each is an important in shaping our language, pages, scenes, chapters, and overall work.
Establishing Shots: Usually discussed in reference to film or television, establishing shots work beautifully in written form to set up the context of a scene. In addition to providing the traditional elements of setting, they create the relationships between the characters and objects in the setting. You can build them through a quick, straight description at the beginning of your scene, but figuritive language or symbols can make them especially powerful. Think of every scene as a scene in a film, and provide an establishing shot for each.
Anchoring Images: An image for your readers to visualize as they move through the scene. Judicious use of props and actions can link establishing shots and various anchor images within a scene to make it play out as visually as a film.
Concluding Image: Underscores the emotional note of a scene and resonates with the reader longer. By using a powerful concluding image, you can say much less explicitly and achieve a greater payoff.
Similes compare two unlike objects using "like" or "as": That dog is like a lump of clay--he never chases balls.
Metaphors, in contrast, don't: That dog, a lump of clay, never chases balls. Or simply, That lump of clay never chases balls.
Eli being a lump of clay.
"Metaphor" sounds like someone saying, "May the Force," doesn't it? (It does if you tilt your head sideways and sing LALALA really loudly...) Their force, their power can create vivid images in our minds.
When I was writing It's Not My Turn To Look For Grandma!, my editor asked me to clarify that the story starts at sunrise and ends at sundown. I had no idea how to communicate this without being too wordy or clunkily obvious. I was actually pretty frightened.
I flailed about. My flailing is not pretty. Want to see what it looks like close up? This Monday I had a boatload of writing to do in the afternoon. But first I had to have lunch--I mean, c'mon. Since I was a little lost and didn't quite know how to start any of the projects looming over me, another helping of veggies and rice seemed like a jolly good idea and oh, that left-over clam chowder sure looked yummy.
After my large lunch, the flailing continued. I had a poem due and no ideas. None. Nada. I lead a pretty pathetic little life, I decided. Except for the dog park and the gym, I'd had no human contact. So I looked around my room. Eli was a lump of clay on the love seat--no help there.
I was too lazy to actually stand up and walk to my bookshelf (sometimes I'm inspired by the pattern or subject of other poems). There was a lemon next to my computer because I'd picked it from our tree and meant to drop it off in the kitchen but brought it into my office instead.
Last week we talked about a few poetic tools you could use while writing. Here are a few more:
This is when a writer says one thing, but actually is saying something else. Floyd Cooper speaks in metaphor in Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes when he calls a train the old iron snake.
Here the writer compares one thing to another with the word like or as. Example: I was as mad as the bumblebee Ferdinand sat on. My friend Eileen Spinelli is great at using similes. Here’s one from Something to Tell the Grandcows. Emmadine has travel to the South Pole and “Her teeth chattered like spoons.” Or how about this one from Rupa Raises the Sun by Marsha Wilson Chall, “the sun broke across the sky like an egg yolk.”
Ann Whitford Paul says in Writing Picture Books, “We write in metaphor and simile to give the reader a visual image instead of a plain description. ” Metaphors and Similes cut down on the words that would be necessary to describe what we want to say. This is a great tool for the picture book writer, especially, because editors are wanting shorter and shorter picture books. This is what Ann does when she want to create a unique, visual, and tone-perfect Metaphor or simile. She numbers a piece of paper from 1 to 10 and then she free associates until she has 10 possibilities. If she doesn’t like any of them, she continues 11 to 20 and keeps going until she creates one that seems perfect. Do I hear a few groans?
With this tool we give human characteristics to something that is not human. If I say, “The book held me in its grasp all the way to the last page.” Everyone knows what I mean, even though books do not have arms. How about? “The icy finger of winter slipped down my shirt.” Winter doesn’t have fingers.
Want to try your hand at identifying the metaphors, similes and personifications below?
1. The moon is a bowl of breakfast cereal.
2. I ran, but danger ran faster.
3. Ryan didn’t want to go to Katie’s party, so he moved slow as a snail.
4. Jacob felt like a rabbit caught in a trap.
5. The tree is our umbrella, keeping us dry from the rain.
6. The quilt spoke stories of love and loss.
ANSWERS: 1. Metaphor 2. Personification 3. Simile 4. Simile 5. Metaphor 6. Personification
HOMEWORK: Now pull out that same manuscript from last week and read it through again. Did you use any of theses techniques? Do you see a place where you could use one of these tools to make your story more interesting or maybe even cut out a few words or lines? Give it a try. What do you have to lose?
Happy hot and glorious summer! I'm loving this hotter-than-usual Southern California summer: lying on hot cement by the pool in a wet bathing suit, barefeet, no sleeves, long days, bright mornings, driving with all the windows down, sleeping with all the windows open, taking Eli to the dog park early because he's black and brown and otherwise he gets too hot to romp like a pony, cold drinks with just the right kind of crunchy ice...I can go on listing all the things I love about summer.
And now onto the topic we TeachingAuthors have been discussing:
GETTING THROUGH TIMES OF DROUGHT
OR HOW I FILL THE WRITING WELL.
(Sorry...I didn't mean to shout.)
Mary Ann posted about finding at least three things to write in her journal each day that trigger her curiosity. Carmela posted that she replenishes her writer's well by taking herself on an artist playdate. And Carmela tells us about her friend, Leanne Pankuch, who writes a page a day.
My contribution is the following poem, inspired by our topic.
DROUGHT by April Halprin Wayland
we've been through Hard Times.
The Long Drought.
Dry? Oh my.
We place our plates upside down,
glasses bottom side up,
so the winds won't blast dust into 'em.
Our typewriters go thirsty on parched parchment.
We've got scrawny stories—or none at all.
We hear that on the outskirts of Amarillo,
crows built a nest from barbed wire—
the only thing they could scavenge
from burned-out fields.
Those birds made a nest
from barbed wire?
Well, Sir, then so can we.
And then: we'll crow.
Not too long ago I was sitting in the audience listening to a distinguished writer talk about her craft when she segued into “What Not to Do!” Then I saw her pick up one of my books.
My mind filled with a numbing buzz like anesthesia for surgery where your soul will be yanked out through your left eyeball. I can’t remember what don’t’s she referred to, but all the while she held my book. Then she opened it and said, “Unless you do it this way.” Ah, a reprieve. Or a backhanded compliment? I still couldn’t focus. The horror of being so close to the Don’t list left my brain limp.
You have to know the rules, before you can break them. That’s what writers say. And maybe I fall into that category, or at least cling to the outside rim, because I’ve noticed that I’ve done it again. Another common piece of advice is to avoid clichés. And yet, one of the literary devices that I employed in For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson, included several clichés –
He had eagle eyes.
Like an owl he worked at night …
He rose with the Robins
It was time to make a nest of his own
Determined as a woodpecker after a bug
I did add a few of my own:
He looked as thin and gawky as a fledgling egret
As focused as a heron after a fish, he perched on the edge of his seat.
But I had a reason. I wanted to create the image of Roger as a Bird, so the reader understood how strongly Roger loved and responded to them. Using phrases like, “he roosted with …” and “he migrated…” helped to reinforce this.
The use of common phrases and images can serve a purpose if you use them consciously and don’t overdo it. Seven comparisons sprinkled throughout a 48 page book with 3,000 words seemed to do the trick.
Will I break more rules in the future? I’m sure someone will point it out to me.
I recently wrapped up a round of revisions for my agent, a few days ago. It's definitely a stronger piece, and it was worth the work. But that's not to say I just blithely tripped through the editorial letter and was all sweetness and light while I worked on it. Just ask my husband about the great Wednesday Night Freakout (he wisely placated me with a giant bowl of Edy's Loaded and a new episode of Top Chef).
What finally got me off my pouting "how will I ever figure out how to do this" chair was a picture book. My three-year-old picked it out from the library. Please forgive me, author, I don't remember the title or your name. Basically it was something like Trains. Or, All About Trains. Each picture showed a train doing something different. I can't say it was as exciting as Leonardo The Terrible Monster or The Pigeon Wants a Puppy (can you tell we have a Mo obsession in our house?). But he liked the trains so I read with half a brain. Anyway, my son stopped me on the picture of a train going through a tunnel.
"Why do trains go through tunnels, Mommy?" he asked.
"Because they have to," said I.
(insert five iterations of "But why?" and "Because")
And then I wised up and said, "Trains go through tunnels because it's the only way they can get to the station."
And ah! A light bulb went on in my head. My son, who is learning Patience With The Household Artiste from my husband, stared while I babbled on about revisions and tunnels and making the train go faster.
So here's the revelation that got me working productively and without (much) moaning. Revisions are tunnels. They're dark and often you don't know how long they'll last. Depending on the tunnel, there could be bats, floods or fire. But here's the thing: you are ON TRACK. Just keep moving through the tunnel. It's your choice, of course, if you wish to linger in the tunnel. If you hop off the train and head out to have a Grey's Anatomy marathon, just know the train won't go anywhere. It will wait, in the tunnel, where you left it. And the only way to be done--to get to the lovely station named DONE FOR CHRISSAKE--is to move the train through the tunnel.
An engineer's hat and a gold star to all who made it through my metaphor! Hey, it works for me. That and Edy's Loaded, Peanut-Butter Cup flavored (how is it that it's only 140 calories per serving? Are they, like, tablespoons?)
Although planting the tiny brown Sweet Pea seeds was a simple task, the girl who loved to garden found it to be less than heartwarming. In all the years previous, she very much looked forward to this particular yearly tradition. She was saddened by her loss of enthusiasm. But....to her surprise, after planting the seedlings, she felt a tick of that old anticipation while waiting for the peek-a-boo seedlings to pop through the warm soil...
With a feeling of accomplishment and a guarded sense of excitement, the girl who loved to garden felt ready to tackle her main garden plot. The laborious task of cutting back and cleaning up this abandoned and cheerless piece of nature was frightening to say the least. It had become terribly overgrown...
and a home to all sorts of "snips of snails"
"and 'possum tails"...
So ~ with her mighty shovel in hand, the girl who loved to garden began to dig...
She found an array of forgotten friends concealed beneath the hodge podge of webs, dried leaves and creepy crawlies...
She wondered if her garden friends had thought she had abandoned them for the rest of time. Truth be known, the girl who loved to garden had thought just that very thing.
So ~ all day long in the scorching, dry desert heat, the girl shoveled and cut and pulled. Sneezing all the while in the dust and mold that had taken over. This snarl of webby, chaotic growth looked impossible to tame. Was anything salvageable?
But Look! Way in the back under the moldy and sunless overgrowth...one lone plant...
Many of the gardening duties required a mightier strength than the girl who loved to garden possessed. She soon found that much of the work could only be done when her Honey was home. There were many other delightful things around her house that needed to be done. But alas ~ since the "Great Depression of 2008", she struggled to find delight in anything. However, she was learning that, in order to get things done, she truly had to force herself.
She busied herself by browsing through some of her very favorite gardening books...
She experimented with new paper for her art prints...
She toyed with the idea of FINALLY taking down her Easter decorations...
She even put on her trusty purple splashers...
and had a walk about her backyard. She thought it about time to have a gander at her little plum tree...
She found that, even without her daily acknowledgement, her little tree was capable of setting fruit...
The girl who loved to garden was ever so pleased to see that her Sweet Pea seedlings were coming right along...
and the few that were naturalized were in full bloom...
While walking about, the girl who loved to garden saw something white peeking out from under the tumble of overgrowth that was once her garden. Oh my, it was a lovely Calla Lily bloom, hidden just so...
What a glorious swirl of white ~ so much like cake icing! The girl remembered that, once upon a time, Calla Lilies were her most cherished flowers. When she married her Honey, she very much wanted to carry a bouquet of Callas, but unfortunately, they were out of season.
(Ooopsie, I think I went off topic for a moment with the girl's wedding).
So, where was I? Oh yes...the lovely white Calla bloom.
After a nice browse in the yard, the girl who loved to garden felt so much lighter ~ maybe even a bit giddy.
Could it be? Is it possible? Just maybe, the girl who loved to garden was finding that, even if by force, discovering the little pieces of heaven in her everyday life was a tonic for her broken heart.
Like the blogger Drek at the sociology blog Scatterplot, from which I am stealing this video, I take things much too literally. I, too, blame this trait for my inability to “get” poetry (a fact which causes no end of frustration to my boyfriend, who writes it; he thinks I’m just not trying).
There’s a particular irony in my case, though, because I am a highly sarcastic individual. And yet also highly gullible, as I am, inexplicably, prone to interpreting others credibly. Said boyfriend and I used to live in Brooklyn, where we had a really busybody landlord living on the ground floor of the same building — a fact I was not too happy about. I was kind of ill when we moved in, so I went to sleep in the middle of the floor, surrounded by boxes, while he went out with his friend. The next morning I was expressing my fears about living with a landlord who always seemed to be hanging around watching, when this exchange occurred:
BOYFRIEND: Yeah, she was still sitting outside watching when I got in last night. ELIZABETH: What? What time was that? BOYFRIEND: Maybe 2, 3 AM. ELIZABETH: Oh my god. We’ll never be able to get away from her! We’ll have to run in and out of the house! BOYFRIEND: Actually, she said she was going to stop by for brunch this morning. ELIZABETH:[horror] BOYFRIEND: I think she’ll be here any minu– [pauses, listening] — Is that her? ELIZABETH:[grim, efficient determination] Okay, let’s think. Maybe we can sneak out the window!
I was totally serious, y’all. (We lived on the third floor of a building with very high ceilings, by the way.) The boyfriend, fortunately, was not.
Anyway, after that excessively long and irrelevant set-up, here is the literally-minded Total Eclipse of the Heart:
And now, to finally make this nominally relevant to our blog: I have noticed that my reading habits have changed with the blog, and I’m not sure if it’s blogging itself (which has made me think more about what I’m reading and take note of cool lines for the Wednesday Words) or things I started doing at around the same time, which partially inspired me to start the blog (reading other blogs, reading books about how fiction is constructed, reading more new children’s lit instead of my same old favorites). But one thing I’ve observed is how much more I appreciate metaphors than I did when I was little.
I love this passage about the strings and the ships and the grass!
Um, it’s a two-page passage about metaphors for death.
But it’s beautiful!
The characters are talking to each other about what’s the best metaphor for death!!!
But they’re picking such good ones!
(I have very explicit arguments with myself in my head.)
So, is this just a sign of getting older — I was never one of those super-literary kids; I loved to read, but it was always trash — or is book blogging going to make me a more high-minded reader? Might I somehow become a poetry fan after all??
Posted in Childhood Reading, Green, John, Paper Towns, This--like so many things--is all about me
I am always intrigued by the language writers use to talk about writing. Perplexed, but intrigued. On-line, cyber space is full of talk of the writer’s tool box. All aspects of writing are tools. Not being a dab hand at DIY I routinely use a hammer to crack a nut and a similar approach to writing might be problematic.
I think people who think of aspects of writing, point of view, voice, world building, character building as tools must have a story in their head somehow, a platonic ideal of a story that they somehow reconstruct with the aid of bolt cutters, electric drills and a pair of pliers. I find the metaphor useless as I have no ideas at all when I start. None. Sweet F A. I don’t need a tool box I need a clue.
Is writing for me like doing a puzzle? A bit. Maybe. I don’t know; I don’t do puzzles. Certainly at the start it is like twenty questions. Is my heroine a princess, a slave, a dog, a duck billed platypus? I really don’t know anything at all at the beginning.
I kind of find all that POV, character and voice stuff arrives with the story – like the instruments I know I want to use from the moment I start trying to come up with a tune. I know the kind of sound I want – more or less, but I work out how to make it as I go along. Does that make sense? Probably not. I don’t understand enough about the mechanics of musical composition to strike a chord with those that do.
When obliged to talk about writing process, I often talk about weaving, which is ridiculous as I have no idea how to do that in real life. I definitely have story threads that I need to be worked into an overall pattern, different colours that need to be given prominence at different times, but as a metaphor it isn’t terribly helpful which probably explains some of the blank looks I get from students.
‘It’s like painting’ I say, a woman who hasn’t painted since about 1978 and wasn’t very good at it then. ‘The narrative kind of drives forward like a snow plough.’ What? ‘It’s like sewing – the main thread is a strong red line I embroider as I go.’ What is this girl on? I can’t do embroidery. I spent the year I was supposed to learn cross-stitch reading ‘Biggles’ under the desk and the same goes for knitting – only I think I was reading ‘Narnia.’
At secondary school I forgot my fabric every sewing lesson as reading the text book was more interesting. I can’t do craft and I can’t explain how I write – metaphors break down, melt or fizzle out in thin air like spells with no substance, lacking truth or power.
I don’t know how to describe writing a book – it’s like writing a book OK?